Thu, Jan 06, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Aid gets through but it is far from being enough

'There's too much to be done. I wish I could fly 24 hours a day,' a US helicopter pilot said

By James Meek  /  THE GUARDIAN , Aceh

ILLUSTRATION MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Just after 4pm Sunday, with the shadows already lengthening, the ash-grey form of a US navy Seahawk helicopter was thudding at speed between the peaks of the forested mountain range which divides the eastern and western sides of the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

On board were four aircrew, Arista Idris, an Indonesian worker from the International Organization for Migration, two journalists, and 450kg of boxed biscuits and fresh water.

The helicopter was one of a dozen from the US aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln being used to shuttle supplies from Banda Aceh airport to the dozens of devastated, cut-off remnants of towns struck by the Boxing Day tsunami.

Crossing the ridge, the aircraft began sledding downwards sharply towards the narrow strip of coast worst affected by the disaster.

There were signs of life below, even motorbikes moving along the fragments of coast road which escaped destruction.

Some sights were deceptive. An expanse of tall green-fringed palms turned out to conceal the sinister blanket of salty grey mud which has devoured the coastland like mould. The surf washing mildly over the boundaries of old rice fields looked as if it was there to stay: the very maps will need to be redrawn.

In a storm of dry leaves, the pilot set the Seahawk down according to the coordinates he was given. It was an unexpectedly Arcadian scene: a lush, deserted clearing in the foothills. In minutes, the helicopter's rotors still turning, the whole cargo of food and water was piled in a neat mound on the grass. But where were the people?

As so often in real horror stories, the tragedy is interspersed with moments of farce. Idris and Jesse Cash, one of the helicopter crewmen, found a gate leading to a comfortable-looking farm. A well-fed woman came up and looked in surprise at the pile of aid in the clearing. In the background, her son, a fleshy boy almost as wide as he was tall, studied the boxes of biscuits with interest.

Somehow, there had been a kink in the operation. Closer to the sea, the woman urged; the refugees from the tsunami were more than a mile up the coast. Cash turned round and marched back to the helicopter. Within a few minutes, sweat rolling down everyone's foreheads in the heat, the food and water was reloaded on to the helicopter and it was in the air again.

As the helicopter ate up the distance, shattered houses came into view and, scattered here and there on the slopes, the corrugated metal and plastic sheeting lean-tos of refugees from the waves.

Some of the buildings in the village of Ladong had escaped the merciless waves because they were clustered on higher ground, and they had clearly become a focus for refugees. As the aircraft approached, figures began to run and wave at it.

When it set down on Ladong's football pitch, there were only a handful of children there. "America!" said one boy, wonderingly, pointing at the helicopter and nodding. Cash tried to marshal them firmly into a line just beyond the circumference of the whirling rotor blades. The idea was that they would come up to the door of the helicopter, take a box, and make way for the next boy.

So it began, for about two seconds. Then the others began pouring on to the pitch, hundreds of men, women and children. They began grabbing the aid boxes in darting lunges towards the helicopter cabin door, laughing and grinning at their friends when they got one as if they had won a prize in a game.

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